Red Hook Summer: A Spike Lee Masterpiece and Historical Timepiece

Red Hook Summer finds Spike Lee back in his beloved Brooklyn. The Brooklyn of Do The Right Thing and Crooklyn, which is rapidly vanishing. Gentrification is turning former black Brooklyn neighborhoods, the cultural foundation for Lee’s work, hip-hop, black Sunni Islam and a thousand other things, into white neighborhoods. Whites from suburban New York and the wealthy suburbs of every city in America (and the international-elite) are moving in and African-Americans are heading back down south to Georgia, Virginia and the Carolinas in a reverse-migration. I have been eagerly awaiting for Lee to address this topic and he does so masterfully in this film.

Jules Brown plays Flik Royale a thirteen year-old boy from Atlanta who has been sent by his mother to spend the summer in the Red Hook Projects with his grandfather Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (brilliantly played by Clarke Peters of The Wire and Treme fame). Flik is growing up in Atlanta - the Black Mecca as it is called, in a life of privilege and attends private-school. While the Bishop is steeped in black culture, the church, and the love of Jesus, the boy is a part of a young generation of black kids embracing an American monoculture which, at the center, technology and gadgets are placed.

Lee gives us a glimpse of project life and the life of everyday New Yorkers. Pissy elevators horrifying Young Flik, the Bishop heading to C-Town for discount groceries and to USA Chicken for fast-food. NYC is home to many ghetto fried chicken chains including USA, Kennedy, Crown, New York and Luther’s. These may seem like minor aspects: but these two choices show the life of an average New Yorker who doesn’t eat out every night, is looking for a deal, and has to shop for groceries. Even with gentrification there are far more New Yorkers living a C-Town and Crown Fried Chicken lifestyle than there are living anything resembled in Hollywood or TV.

Not growing up in the church, and without his father who was killed in Afghanistan, Flik gets a good dose of Jesus and the Good Book from his grandfather. The grandfather gets down behind the pulpit giving rousing sermons mixing social messages with Bible verses and Flik gets some more once back at his grandfather’s apartment. The Bishop is old school and old school in America, especially in the black community, is Christian. All roads lead to Jesus for him and he preaches this message on project street corners, to thugs, and Mookie delivering pizza, and whoever else will listen. Flik is a part of a generation that is in church at a much lower percentage and religion is not promoted in the mainstream culture instead often finding ridicule. The history of how the black church has been a rock in the stormy and bloody waters of black American history is lost on Flik as it would be lost on most kids his age. He wants to play with his iPad and get back to ATL with the quickness.

The Bishop is preaching to a dwindling flock. This is a product of the gentrification Lee alludes to: but there are other factors as well. Brooklyn has been the home to black Sunni Muslim movements including the Dar al Islam, Muslims of the Americas and the Bed-Stuy mosque of Imam Siraj Wahhaj for decades. Islam is at an advanced stage in the black community of Brooklyn and with that has eroded the universal spiritual leadership of the church. It aint the only game in town. In addition to Sunni Muslims there are others on the scene: pseudo-Islamic groups like the 5 Percenters and the Nation, Hebrew Israelites, Black Nationalist churches, teachers of traditional African spirituality, and a new black affluence that may shun traditional religion and praying to a picture of a blue-eyed fair-skinned Jesus. The Bishop is competing against all of this even if the film doesn’t show this. The Bishop is also the product of a more traditional black culture, that demanded respect for your elders, and Flik comes off more like bratty suburban white kids I have known who have no respect for their elders.

Chazz Morningstar played by Toni Lysaith is the same age as Flik and while working at the church with him becomes his guide to Red Hook. A Red Hook that is increasingly divided between black (and Latino to a lesser extent) residents of the projects and affluent whites buying the homes in the neighborhood. Flik, ill-adjusted to project life makes stupid mistakes like trying to take photos of a crew of Bloods on his iPad. Chazz and Flik adventure through the streets and enjoy messing up the fresh-poured concrete of a white homeowner who chases them. The friction between black youth and the affluent white homeowners is real. That scene may not be. From my experience these white “urban pioneers” (who borrow a term commonly associated with genocides) are scared of their own shadows and wouldn’t chase a toddler down the street. Their rage is saved for calling the police and neighborhood association meetings.

A powerful line in the movie, in a discussion of life with Chazz, in which Flik speaks of the “white people who don’t want us around.” This forces the viewer to think of the psychological affects this must have on the black children of Brooklyn. Success, “turning around the neighborhood” and whatever other phrase has at its core the removal of the poor and people of color. Their removal means success and their existence is seen as blight by its very nature. What affect must this have on a child’s self-image? Then you look at black youth acting out and things such as the Knockout King game (were mostly black youth attack random whites, mostly yuppies, as a part of a sick game) and wonder are they related? The Bishop in a later discussion with his “lady friend” and the mother of Chazz discusses reverse-migration in light of gentrification. The Bishop drops a line, and I don’t know it exactly, that alludes to people leaving New York for the south and losing something. This is what I have been wondering for years. As blacks leave the brownstones and tenements of pedestrian cities and the cultural heartland of hip-hop, Sunni Islam, neo-soul and so much else special will this culture survive in the bland and generic suburbs of Atlanta and Charlotte? I doubt it. Yet, at the family-level, this means little to the family who cannot afford the high cost of living in New York and can sell a house for a million or two and go down south and buy a new home with a two-car garage for two-hundred grand or less.

The beauty of the ghetto is ever-present in this film. A woman in the wheelchair dedicated to her garden and the Gospel even after having lost a child. The church organist doing his thing and the volunteers who staff the fledgling church. There is a stereotype of the black preacher as the Bentley-driving, jewelry-wearing, pussy-crazed con-artist making a living passing the plate to poor church members. There are many preachers who work hard to fulfill this stereotype and see their role as little more than using Jesus to get paid and there are those on TV such as Creflo Dollar who have taken it to the next level. Yet, there is another story. The story of struggling congregations, like Lil’ Peace of Heaven Baptist Church of Red Hook, who operate on a shoestring budget and it is the love of Jesus and the people and not the love of money that keep their doors open. These congregations, and there are many urban mosques like this as well, are kept open by the sweat of the people.

While the Bishop and his Grandson butt heads, even over the down home food of the grandfather and the vegan food of Flik, and gentrification looms in the background there is another pressing issue. The Bloods Crew (or “set” as we would say in St. Louis) led by Box played by Nate Parker. The Bishop doesn’t give up on Box, as he preached to his dead mother and to him as a boy, but tries to protect Flik from him. The reality of Box and his Bloods crew is that while normal everyday life is going on in the Red Hook Projects, or any ghetto in America, there is in the background hustlin going on and with that a culture of violence and death that children grow up with and working and old people have to navigate through to survive.

The friendship of Flik and Chazz grows and it is a kind of an innocent and old-school crush I would like to think still exists in this era of middle-school threesomes and blow-jobs being the equivalent to a handshake for many teens. Flik seems to warm on Red Hook and the church as his grandfather shows his more human side after being dressed down by Sister Sharon (played by Heather Simms) about a false romanticism about the good ‘ole days and burying your head in your ass in the name of religion. Then, it all blows up.

I will not spoil the movie or give away any details. Church pedophilia rears its ugly head. This in and of itself may shock many as pedophilia is often associated with the white church: but without saying it another message of this film is yes this happens in the black church as well (it happens in the Muslim community as well and there is the same tendency to cover it up).

Although controversial, I find the way Lee deals with pedophilia to be masterful. It comes at the height of a moving and beautiful religious service and it comes as a huge surprise that startles the viewer. You get the predictable reactions. Some refuse to believe the allegation, others condemn the perpetrator to hell, and a straight-up ass whoopin. The other two directions of the film are what I find genius.

First, the sexual-predator admits his guilt and the abuse is shown. Some critics have complained about this as unnecessary. Garbage. If it happens in real life and it is a part of the story it needs to be on film. While the audience is squeamish and uncomfortable the reality of what happens to children is being exposed to them. Feel bad seeing it? It’s a lot worse feeling it.

Then, after horrifying audiences by showing the abuse, the character is redeemed- and this is the most Christian part of the film. The man admits his guilt, admits he was sick, admits there was a cover-up, and proclaims he has been cured and saved by Jesus - and the help of a doctor. Society may never forgive you, your victims may curse you: but the powerful message of a loving God is that He will forgive you if you come to Him, repent and turn from your wicked ways. The sexual predator knows he has been redeemed and yet knows the world will still judge him for his worst deeds despite his good deeds.

I highly recommend this film. Go and see it.